Ceramic plates (Submitted photo)

“You broke it? I’m so glad you were using it!’

As a functional ceramicist, Joanna Kramer makes products that are meant to be used: mugs, vases, bowls and more. When one of her creations leaves her studio, Kramer feels a certain contentment knowing it survived the perilous creation process and that in the days and years to come, the piece will be part of someone’s daily rituals and special celebrations.

Ceramic mugs with flower design (Submitted photo)

Kramer operates Ware Studio located at 1040 Wesley Ave., just south of Greenleaf Street. The area around the Greenleaf Street and Florence Avenue intersection is a budding art community with several recently opened studios.

Kramer works in her studio daily and on weekends coordinating with her family schedule. The drying, kiln firing, and cooling cycle that is applied several times to most ceramic pieces requires a lot of waiting time. Kramer enjoys the significant solitary studio time as well as the exclusive decision-making her creative process provides. She also likes being in a neighborhood where people pass by and look in the windows—or come in to shop.

In the main room of the studio there are three wide worktables on wheels that can easily be moved to accommodate the stage and type of product Kramer is working on. The tables have a lower storage shelf where she keeps 50 pound bags of clay. There is also a potter’s wheel.  A separate room holds two different size kilns along with storage shelves for her molds, glazes, and finished pieces.

Kramer has put a great deal of thought into making the studio an efficient and flexible space. She thinks a lot about movement of the human body (hers!) in the studio design and layout. This minimizes waste and helps to reduce the physical stress that often afflicts artists that do this type of work. Each process element such as bending to dip the products in water or breathing less dust in the air has been carefully optimized for health and safety.

Stacked mugs with “vibrant” bicycle design (Submitted photo)

Kramer describes her two lines of products as either “vibrant” or “quiet”. Vibrant works usually have more color and often have images. The images, such as a bicycle, animal, or school logo can be either created by her or outsourced. Quiet works have a variety of finishes often with a more natural design in the clay.

The ceramics are usually done as a series such as a group of bowls, mugs, or plates. Each will have similar designs and finishes. But because of the variances buried within handmade ceramic processes, no two will be exactly the same.

Drinking vessels with “quiet” design (Submitted photo)

The first steps in Kramer’s creative process relate to the shape of the piece and deciding whether it will be turned on the potter’s wheel or built as a “flat” piece. For a flat piece, she selects the mold size she plans to use. After rolling out a big clay slab to the desired thickness, she will cut the piece by hand. The design then is added. An example might be pressing burlap onto the clay to embed its reverse image. Each piece is done individually imparting the intricacy of a handmade item.  A piece’s beauty partially comes from its imperfection. Kramer places the items into or on the plaster mold and lets it sit while she starts the next piece. After about 20 minutes she can pull the piece off the mold and use the mold for another piece. This is a system that does not require waiting as she can create 8 to 20 pieces in one sitting.

This method of doing varied tasks (roll, design, press) also helps keep her physically healthy by including full-body movement. Another example of this variety is when she is at the potter wheel. After a few pieces she walks the piece to a table six feet away. It may not be time efficient, but it is physically sustaining.

After the pieces are formed, they must dry. The weather affects how long this takes, but the pieces need to dry evenly and slowly so they do not crack when fired. Normal drying time is a couple of days. And if the clay still feels cold, it is not dry enough.

Firing is the next step. The first firing is hot but less than mid-range firing. It’s called a bisque firing, and prepares the piece to successfully accept a glaze. The glaze is usually applied by dipping. Glaze is glass suspended in liquid, and it’s not a messy process as the glaze is thick and dries very quickly.

The last firing is mid-range heat around 2000 degrees. The firing doesn’t take long, but the items must cool in the closed kiln, taking two to three days.

After this long process, the final steps happen quickly; first, a sanding to eliminate any harsh edges in water so there is no inhalable dust; then a rinse. The piece is ready to sell and use.

Kramer repeats this process about 30 times a month. A ceramicist has to start more pieces than required because usually a small percentage of pieces are unsatisfactory due to slumping, cracking, etc. On a commission order, Joanna always makes extra pieces for the series as it is nearly impossible to perfectly match a finish over an entire group.

Joanna Kramer (Photo by Rebecca Nottonson)

Kramer’s studio was a bit empty on the day I interviewed her. She had just completed a rewarding studio sale where she sold out of everything “…for the first time!” She was already back to work.

Kramer launched her business in Evanston, thanks to some moms of her kid’s friends. They liked her work so much that they spread the word about the classes she leads. While she knew she could not succeed in business just through friends, their efforts did provide an affirmation of the demand for her work. She launched her studio and business from there.

If you would like to learn more about Kramer’s work, or purchase her ceramics, please visit her website. Or visit her studio at 1040 Wesley Ave.

This article first appeared on the Evanston Made website.

Jean Cunningham

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.